Remembering Wehrenberg Theatres

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Looking at the website of a local paper recently, a headline came to my attention quickly. My local theater chain, Wehrenberg Theatres, which is one of the biggest family owned theater chains in the country, has been sold to Marcus Theatres. The main theater chains in the country, like AMC or Regal Theatres, actually have fewer theaters in St. Louis than they do in most cities. Wehrenberg Theatres have a pretty good foothold here in St. Louis. According to the company that bought Wehrenberg Theatres, all the theaters will remain the same, but isn’t that what always happens when a company is bought out? Even if nothing changes, this is an end of an era in my movie going life.

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Everyone has a favorite movie theater that they go to growing up. Mine was a Wehrenberg theater: the Kenrick 8 Cine. By modern standards, it is a really quaint, but it was the theater that I attended the most as a child. What didn’t hurt was that the theater was a few minutes drive from my house, so if you got an urge to see a movie and had free time, it was an incredibly convenient location. The lobby to the theater was huge, with a selection of arcade games on both sides of the large room.

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At the time it was opened on December 7th, 1984, it was a state of the art theater, which meant that it got all of the new movies the week they were released. It was an 8 screen theater, but if you wanted the best experience, you would go see the movie when it first came out and was put in one of the two large auditoriums in the theatre. The biggest screens were huge, and well worth the money. Even today, I think those 2 screens are larger than most screens at any regular cineplex these days.

Over the years, I saw pretty much every big movie at the main auditoriums at Kenrick 8 Cine. Jurassic Park, Independence Day, The Phantom Menace were among the films I watched in great quality. While it was only an 8 screen theater, Wehrenberg put money into retaining its quality. In 1996, the two big screens were closed for two months while stadium seating was put in the auditoriums. Star Trek: First Contact was the first movie I saw in stadium seating, and that theater was one of the first in the area to have it.

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Like most things, that theater would soon decline in popularity. An old theater about 10 minutes away, Ronnies, was torn down and completely rebuilt in late 1999. This was a mega theater – the Ronnies 20 Cine. Now, if there was a movie you wanted to see, it was there. Not only could you go to the movies, but you could sit and eat at a concession stand modeled after a drive-in theater. If you wanted to kill time before a movie started, the theater had a two story arcade with new games and air hockey tables, in stark contrast to the few arcade games at the old Kenrick theater. Ronnies became a hang out theater, stealing away the teenage market that propped up the Kenrick theater at the height of its popularity.

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The emergence of Ronnies as the preeminent theater of the area led to the downfall of the Kenrick theater. Now, when new movies came to the theater, you didn’t have to worry about getting there early, in fact, you could come close to showtime and get decent seats. Wehrenberg decided to stop putting money into maintaining the theater, so it languished. While Ronnies had stadium seating in every auditorium, Kenrick stopped with two screens, putting it well behind Ronnies and other and newer theaters in the area. I pretty much started going to Ronnies mostly, and only on occasion seeing a movie at Kenrick, due to its closeness. I wasn’t the only one and over the years, the show started cutting back on showtimes during the week, and getting less and less crowded as the years passed.

The last movie I saw at Kenrick was a free screening of “Juno” in November of 2007. Less than a week later, the cinema was shut down with no warning. What hurt more than anything was seeing the abandoned theater just sit there, empty and falling apart. There was a perfectly viable theater just sitting out there unoccupied. It stayed that way until a couple years ago, when it was finally torn down to make up a new shopping area.

To this day, Ronnies remains the biggest theater in the area. Good luck trying to see a major movie opening day without purchasing tickets in advance. To Wehrenberg’s credit, they put money into the theater still. A couple years ago they did common sense renovations like changing the carpets inside, and repainting the inside and outside of the theater. That kind of upkeep didn’t happen at Kenrick. What remains unknown is how the company will be treated now that it is owned by another company. I remain optimistic, because why screw with something that already works? Either way, an era in St. Louis movie going has ended and another will soon begin.

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